Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Tale of Two Marathons

Here I am just days away from the start of another marathon training season. Once again, I'll be looking forward to Saturday mornings spent in fellowship at the Church of Running with my Team Navy (now renamed Team Midnight) family.

What a different place I am in from this time last year. Last year, I was a marathon virgin, babying my recently-broken foot and filled with anxiety. Now, with two marathons notched into my belt, I feel like an old hand at this game.

But I'm really not an old hand at all. Actually, I don't think it is possible to ever become old hand when it comes to marathons. Whether you've run one or fifty, each and every one is a completely unique beast, its training season a maze of detours, pathways, obstacles, and lessons. And no matter what you do, when marathon day dawns, part of what happens out there will always be beyond you control.

As I've alluded to in a previous entry, my two marathons (Richmond and Raleigh) could not have been any more different from day one of training season to the finish line, with very different results. In the weeks since Raleigh, I have been stewing on the respective experiences and trying to figure out how to distill them into one grand master plan for conquering Steamtown. Which things should I do the same? What should I change up? Should I just repeat everything that I did for Richmond, which was The Magic Marathon experience? Was there anything  about Raleigh that is worth doing again?

To help me in this quest, I thought getting my thoughts written (typed) on paper (virtual paper) might help. Thus, the following Tale of Two Marathons.

Part I: Training Plan

Richmond: I made much of my very carefully plotted Frankenstein plan - a mash up of the FIRST Run Less, Run Faster sixteen week plan and the MTT Run and Then Run Some More twenty-four week plan. I then faithfully executed the plan, hardly every straying from the prescribed 3-run-a-week format: speed work on Monday, tempo mid-length run on Wednesday, and MTT long run on Saturday.

In addition, I did cardio-based cross training twice a week without fail. Initially a mix of biking and swimming, it ended up being more swimming heavy at the end when I decided that it was the bike that was making my back and butt hurt.

I held myself accountable, dutifully recording every work out in a spread sheet, on my Google calendar, and on Daily Mile. I also reported weekly in the blog (that was more for me than you) and kept a running (punny!) tally of my mileage totals.

Raleigh: Since the Frankenstein plan had led to such success in Richmond, I fully intended to do the same thing for Raleigh. That, however, was quickly abandoned when I got benched for two weeks in December thanks to the piriformis issue reaching the point where my left leg went numb on cue at mile 3 of any run. I didn't do another two digit run until January 26.

My training plan became a survival plan. I just wanted to get to the start line and run the race, not be a superstar. I maintained the three run a week format but did not do any speed work and cross-training wasn't the prescribed swim or bike, but usually a cop out elliptical session. There was only one 20-mile long run.

In terms of tracking and accountability, I pretty much disappeared from the blog. I created a training plan spreadsheet but never updated it (it still sits, sad and abandoned, on my Google drive). Don't ask me how many miles I ran during training, because I have no idea! I did upload to the Garmin website and Daily Mile, but didn't keep a tally. Mainly because I knew the number was going to be dismally small and I was worried about how that small number would impact my mental preparedness.

Part II: Outside Factors

Richmond: In my mind, the single biggest reason for my success in Richmond is simple: MTT. From the first long run to pretty much the entire 26.2 miles of the marathon, I had a teammate or coach to rely on when the going got tough. As the summer wore on, I logged fewer and fewer solo miles. Greg and I did speed work on Monday, Coach Shawn organized group runs for the Wednesday mid-distance, and of course there were Saturday long runs with the entire group.

Thanks to the Navy contingent that ran together on marathon day, the Richmond Marathon felt like just another long run.

I also lucked out with a really good few months of weather. Richmond summers are notoriously hot and humid, and while the summer of 2013 was each of these things, we didn't experience the sweltering 100+ degrees for days on end kind of weather that had been the hallmark of 2012. Sure, there were a few blistering days, but they didn't hang around for too long.

For each of my twenty milers, the weather was overcast (in one case, it was raining) and temps were not terribly oppressive. Out of all those other training runs, I think only 3 or 4 had to be done on a treadmill because of heavy rain or dangerously high levels of heat and humidity.

But it wasn't all magical and perfect. I did have a lot of anxiety and took a week off after I had a semi-meltdown about foot pain that ended up being thanks to a piece of glass being stuck in my foot for a few weeks. I also felt very over-scheduled during the September and October time frame, having an event on almost every weekend in addition to the longest long runs I had ever run.

Raleigh: Although I am forever grateful for the camaraderie of Team Navy, I think that I got slightly over-dependent on other people to get me through the miles. As much as I love each and every one of my running friends, I let them become crutches for me. In Richmond, it worked out perfectly.

The dependency carried through to training for Raleigh, when I joined a smaller training program along with Teresa, Kit, Lauren, and Will. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. The group was smaller and we didn't always run together.

On marathon day, it was just me and T. And then, at mile 9 or so... it was just me. Now that I think about it, I think that those 16 miles were the longest I have ever run solo in my entire life. Who knows whether or not I would have been faster if I had had T with me or some other running buddy. Given the hills, the heat, and my lack luster training, I don't think it would have mattered. But that's the thing about marathons... you just never know.

While the weather for Richmond training was blissfully drama free, training season for Raleigh just happened to coincide with the winter of the Polar Vortex. We were breaking record lows left and right and it snowed so many times in Richmond that even I was tired of it. Snowy, icy roads meant that not only were they not safe to run on, but I also missed a number of mid-week runs because they weren't safe to drive on either and I couldn't get to the treadmill.

When we did run outside, it was freakin' freezing. Layer upon layer of clothes, hats, gloves... I even bought butt warming down-insulated shorts to layer over my fleece-lined tights. And still my butt cheeks went numb on countless runs, along with my face. I seriously considered buying a balaclava, but that was just one step too far for me.

And of course, the underlying negative factor that defined my Raleigh training was my persistently-painful piriformis. (Did you like that alliteration?) There were days when it hurt so much that I was in tears; that I would have gladly allowed a doctor to stick a giant needle into my back or butt if it meant the pain would stop. I was in PT for the entire duration of training. Thankfully, the pain mostly happened when I was sitting or standing still and not when I was running, so I didn't miss many training runs because of piriformis pain.

Part III: Are You Mental?

Richmond: I had one true mental break down, which was the foot-in-glass incident. Otherwise, there was never an "I can't do this" moment. By the time marathon week rolled around, I was so excited that I was more like a kid at Christmas than anything. Having tracked and tallied my hundreds of training miles, with two good 20-miler experiences to my credit, I felt confident that I was ready to tackle this thing.

Raleigh: Thanks to suddenly recurring foot pain and panic over the very warm weather forecast, I was pretty much certifiable in the week leading up to Raleigh. I was 99% convinced that the race was going to end up as a DNF. I called BFF Steve on that Friday and he had to talk me down from the ledge. The ledge being: I shouldn't run this race, because if I do, I will break my foot again. I made Husband get my crutches out of the attic and put them in my car (just in case).

Starting a race thinking you're going to end up with a broken foot is not good.

Outside of that, I knew that my training had not been as thorough and deliberate as it had been for Richmond. I felt under prepared and that scared me.

BUT of the two marathons, I'd say that my mental toughness prevailed in Raleigh more than in Richmond. In Richmond, I just didn't have to address the mental side of things. Ever. In Raleigh, on top of all of the anxiety I had beforehand, I had to rely on me, myself, and I to get through 16 challenging miles after T and I separated. Even though my performance in terms of time was not better in Raleigh, I am really proud of being able to get my head on straight and channel all of the anxiety into a strong finish despite many obstacles and unexpected challenges.

Part IV: What Does It All Mean?

First and foremost, it is obvious that I did better when I was faithful to a plan and carefully tracked my progress. Given my generally OCD/Planny McPlannerston nature, that isn't much of a surprise. So, that will need to happen again if I am going to improve in Steamtown. I will also get back to my weekly progress reports, so prepare for that tedium.

Fully committing to the FIRST program is also a must. It worked in Richmond - when I did it the way I was supposed to. Swimming will become my go-to for cardio cross-training days. No more lackadaisical elliptical sessions for me. Three runs a week will have purpose and focus.

For better or worse, I'm a social runner who does better in a group. So of course I am training with Team Navy  Midnight again. Many of the cast from last summer will be returning too - Teresa, Kit, Lauren, Greg (now Coach Greg), Coach Shawn, Will. But we are also adding to the family with the addition of Marathon Winer and a few others that have been recruited during the "off" season. I don't have to tell you that I'm really looking forward to it.

Anxiety is my worst enemy and always has been (whether related to marathons or not). To help with that, I'm making an effort to not schedule a lot of weekend events over the next few months. It shouldn't be that hard... I used up all of my vacation time (and money) on our crazy European adventures last year so we aren't going anywhere of note. My parents are moving to Richmond, so we won't be trekking to Maryland as often. And by now, pretty much all of our friends are finally married off, so we shouldn't have a bunch of weddings to go to. Sticking to a well-thought out training process and tracking my progress should also help me feel like I am accomplishing something and hopefully cut down on anxiety as well.

Weather is weather... just deal with it as it comes. I heard that the Farmer's Almanac predicts a cooler than usual summer in Richmond. Not really sure if I believe in that stuff, but for now I'll take it.

That leaves the elephant in the room - injuries. Much to my chagrin, it has become clear that I am an injury-prone runner. No one wants to be one or admit to it, but there it is. In an effort to start things off on the right foot, I have taken it somewhat easy during the time after the Portland Half and the start of MTT this weekend. All I can do as the training cycle progresses is be careful and vigilant, while not verging into paranoid.

It all sounds so easy now, doesn't it?

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